Attending the Blakesburg Fly-In, a First-Timer's Guide
2016 Fly-In Dates: August 30 - September 4, 2017
Blakesburg... you often hear it uttered reverently by antiquers, but have never been to the Blakesburg Fly-In yourself. Make this year the year that you do attend! It isn't hard to do and it is well worth the trip.
I'm Russell Williams, an AAA member and the webmaster, and this guide is my attempt to help at planning for first-timers, with accumulated info from attending every year since 1998. I usually fly my Ryan to the fly-in from Seattle, Washington, so it is a 5 or 6 day trip for me, and the trip is half the fun. However Blakesburg is not a big production with a bit of planning ahead. If you have any questions please email for advice, or call AAA HQ at Blakesburg.
Here's a video of the experience of flying in the evenings at Antique Airfield during the fly-in. The flying is a big part of the experience, and meeting or catching up with the people who live and breath antique aircraft is the other, but that's harder to capture on film.
Blakesburg requires Membership in the AAA
For a variety of reasons including insurance coverage, the AAA National Fly-in at Blakesburg is an invitational members-only event. There are numerous benefits to AAA membership and being able to attend the fly-in is one of the biggest. You can join on the spot if you didn't already join and pre-register. Pre-registration helps out with the planning so please do if you can.
If you're flying in, Blakesburg is about halfway between Ottumwa (KOTM) and Albia in southeastern Iowa. Antique Airfield is a private strip charted on the Chicago sectional as IA27.
If you're not flying with a GPS, the best way to locate Antique Airfield is to go to Ottumwa Airport/VOR, then head south towards downtown Ottuwma. After you cross the river, hang a right and follow the 2 lane US Highway 34 towards the west. Stay on the south side of the road. About 10 miles to the west you should see a microwave relay tower to the south. Antique Airfield is about 1/2 mile north and east of that tower. The fly-in runway is oriented north/south, and aircraft parking is to the east of the runway.
See below for some tips on Antique Airfield flight procedures.
If you're driving in, the nearest commercial service is Des Moines (DSM). From there, rent a car and take Highway 5, the bypass on the south side of Des Moines, to the east and continue to Highway 163 South. From there it is 4 lanes all the way into Ottumwa on 163 and then US 63, a total of about an hour and half of driving. Exit onto Business 63 at Ottumwa. Most of the hotels are either along Business 63 north of downtown, or are in the downtown area.
If you're going directly from Des Moines to Antique Airfield without stopping in Ottumwa, get off of Highway 63 at Eddyville onto highway 137, then after 1/4 mile turn left onto County Road T-61, or Monroe Wapello Road, which will take you directly to Blakesburg. At the main intersection in Blakesburg, turn left onto Bluegrass Road. Antique Airfield will be on your left after about 5 miles.
If you're heading into Ottumwa, for example to check into accommodations, to get to Antique Airfield continue on Highway 63 south into downtown Ottuma and cross the river. Continue straight onto Wapello Street through the city park, and the road then morphs into Ferry Street. Proceed straight through a residential section until Ferry Street dead ends at Mary Street. Turn right on Mary, and follow that road past a cemetery out of town to the west. The road turns into Bluegrass Road. Continue about 10 miles until you see Antique Airfield and the Airpower Museum on your right.
The member parking area is to the east of the field. Please don't pull up to the main museum entrance to park as the amount of parking at the museum is extremely limited. The security gatekeepers will send you back to the member parking area unless you have a handicap parking permit.
Here's a handy link to Google Maps to get driving directions to Antique Airfield.
You've got two choices for accommodations - camping at Antique Airfield, or staying a local hotel.
For campers there are showers and facilities at the field. You can camp under the wing or pitch your tent closer to the woods. There are full meals at the field so you don't have to cook yourself. Camping at the field is a great experience and the cheapest way to attend.
There are three designated campgrounds on the field and an area for RV's. The North and far North campgrounds (the far North campground is designated a quiet campground) have a showerhouse as does the South campground (which also serves the RV area) There are no electrical hookups of any kind in any of the campgrounds, so if you would like to bring and run a generator you will be required to set up camp in the RV area at the far S end of the field.
There are a number of the standard chain hotels in Ottuwma, which you should be able to find via online travel booking sites, and a few not-so-chain lodges.
The chain hotels are exactly like other instances of their chain, so you be the judge. I've stayed at most over the years. Some folks swear by the Indian Hills Inn, since they have a van that will pickup at Antique Airfield. I've also stayed at the Hotel Ottumwa, which is the old grand hotel of the town and the biggest building in downtown. The Hotel Ottumwa has become a new favorite amongst attendees, and it has a great breakfast cafe as well.
A word of caution - book in advance. Reservations for the fly-in often sell out the town several months ahead of time, although there are last minute cancellations so sometimes you can get lucky. One year I was tardy in making a reservation and the closest place I could find was a divey no-tell flophouse in Fairfield, which is a long drive and not much fun. It would have been better to camp, even though I'm not much of a camper!
If you're camping at the field then you may not need transport, after all you arrived in an airplane, right? If you do want to go into town, first try getting a ride from a fellow attendee. There's almost always somebody going in or out during most hours of the day.
Some of the Hotels, such as Indian Hills Resort, also offer van transportation in shifts to and from the field. To my knowledge most of the hotels in Ottumwa do not offer transportation.
There are often people going back and forth to Ottumwa so you can try catching a ride, but for maximum flexibility you'll want a rental car.
If you're flying in to Antique Airfield and want a rental car, try Hertz or Enterprise in Ottumwa, or Midwest Auto Sales. You can negotiate having cars brought out to Antique Airfield for pickup and dropoff if you call in advance. You definitely need to make a car reservation in advance as the fly-in will sell out all the cars in town.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are available on the field, catered by the Hy-Vee (a local grocery store and catering company). The food is filling and satisfying but it won't win any gourmet awards.
During the day you can get bottled drinks, water and munchies from the Hy-Vee all day long. There is also usually some ice cream, in recent years home-made along with home-made pies being sold by the library. It melts fast but sure is nice in the heat.
In the evenings after the sun goes down and flying is over the Pilot's Pub comes to life.
There are the usual selection of chain restaurants in Ottumwa if you have transportation to get there.
I personally recommend trying local establishments. Some good options are: The Second Avenue Cafe is a breakfast and lunch diner. It is located in the first floor of the Hotel Ottumwa downtown. The Canteen Lunch is famous for its loose-meat sandwiches. Bubba Q's in the Quincy Place Mall is a local favorite.
Days to Attend
The fly-in officially starts Wednesday at noon on the Wednesday before the Labor Day weekend, and goes until Monday afternoon. I think it really gets going Thursday afternoon. Most folks arrive on Friday and the field is pretty full by Friday evening. In 2010 the field was nearly filled up by midday Saturday, but that's usually not an issue.
Friday and Saturday are the busiest days for seeing people, planes and flying. Many folks are leaving by Sunday morning and Sunday is a more relaxed day. I've stay over Sunday and I enjoy the slower pace, it is a great time to browse around the library and catch up with people who are too busy to chat during the high points of the fly-in. The Awards ceremony (aka the annual "They've Gone Home" ceremony) is on Sunday evening and it is worth sticking around for for the standup routine by Paul Berge the MC. Monday is cleanup and departure day.
Cell phone reception at Antique Airfield is not good. Do not count on your phone working if you have AT&T service, Verizon is somewhat better but still not great. There's a phone for local calls in the HQ building.
There's now WiFi available in the Ground Loop Inn and APM Library from 8pm to 7am. It isn't the fastest but if you must check email, or you're a blogging and photo junkie like me, then you can get your fix.
Am I Welcome At Antique Airfield Flying In Without an Antique or Classic?
I often get asked by readers whether flying in with a non-antique aircraft is ok. The answer is that anybody who's interested in antique or classic airplanes is welcome. Obviously the fly-in is primarily made up of people of flying antique/classic airplanes, so if you can bring one that's best. But if you don't have a choice then fly in with whatever you've got and you'll be welcome. Your only penalty will be to be parked on the north 40, but unlike some other flyins there are no busses or ropes, and the easy walk on the grass amongst the antiques is quite pleasant. Homebuilts are also ok, in fact there's now an newsletter focused on "second-generation antiques," that is homebuilts that are now considered classics.
As noted above, the Blakesburg fly-in does require membership in the AAA. If you're thinking you're going to fly-in please call ahead, become a member of the AAA if you're not already, and pre-register.
Flight Operations at Antique Airfield
Antique Airfield is strictly see and avoid, and one of the best things about the fly-in is that many folks are actually flying! In fact, if you fly in please make a point of giving a ride to somebody else. You can probably get one in return in a plane that you'll never see anywhere else.
Here's a video that covers the basics of flying at Antique Airfield, with footage of approaches.
Since lots of folks are flying around, within about 10 miles of Antique Airfield put down the moving map GPS, turn off the radio, look outside the cockpit, and put your head on a swivel. It is traditional VFR flying. Be aware that barnstorming biplanes often do some impromptu acro, so be vigilant and look up/down as well as sideways.
There's no radio frequency and no need to call positions. Just look for the prevailing traffic pattern or lacking traffic fly over the field and look at the landing direction indicator in the center of the field. There's also a sock. Enter the pattern on the 45 and on final pay attention to the flagger stationed near the approach end of the runway. The flagger will give you a red or green flag. If you get the red flag then go around.
The reason the flagger is there is that the runway has a rise in the middle, so planes taxiing on the ground can't see the entire runway. In addition to the approach flagger, there's a flagger at midfield who can see both ends of the runway and make sure that taxi and landing accidents are avoided. The flaggers work together so all you really need to pay attention to on landing is the flagger at the approach end. Please pay attention to the flagger and be patient if you're waved off. There will be plenty of time at the event even if you have to go around.
Also be aware that many planes do low pass flybys. They use the normal pattern for fly-bys.
The fly-in runway is oriented north-south and is marked with cones. Landing to the south is a bit more common but you'll see both directions in use. The east-west runway is not used during the fly-in and is used for parking only.
Lastly, some notes about the field itself. Antique Airfield is all grass and is well mowed and maintained. It can be a bit short so watch your airspeed and touchdown point, especially if you're not used to flying out of short strips. Antique Airfield is officially 2350' feet long. Also remember that you won't get much as braking on the grass, although drag on the grass will slow you down faster than rolling on pavement. If you're really hardcore, fly in with a plane with a tail skid - stops quite quickly on grass once you dig in the skid!
The best bet if you're not familiar is to practice short and grass field operations in your local area before attending. If you've never had the good fortune to land on grass it is a wonderful experience.
To make things a little more interesting at Antique Airfield, if you're landing to the south, the runway touchdown zone starts lower than the rest of the field and slopes upward towards midfield. The runway levels out after midfield. Make sure you aim your landing at the touchdown zone and don't try to land midfield to avoid the low spot. Antique Airfield is too short for an unfamiliar pilot to pull this off, and pucker factor just isn't much fun. The touchdown area slopes off to the right as well so be prepared for some tricky bounces in a taildragger. There's nothing an experienced taildragger pilot can't easily handle.
If you're landing north, the runway is flat, wide, and an unobstructed approach.
There are touchdown lines chalked onto the runway 300 ft from either end, and there's a dirt road track that crosses the runway at midfield (which is also at the corner of the museum building) that serves as a convenient halfway point marker.
Once you've landed, a 4-wheeler will come out to greet you and guide you into a parking spot. Antiques and classics are roughly grouped together for parking. While taxiing use care for pedestrians on the field. If in doubt, stop and shutdown. Be aware of your prop blast and don't try to rotate into a parking spot if you have neighbors on either side - ask them to help push instead.
If anything feels uncomfortable about your approach then go around! Lot of folks are probably admiring your plane but nobody will think the less of you for going around. Also don't worry about the peanut gallery, they're almost all pilots and they understand. As my friend Addison Pemberton says, if you can't handle having one out of five landings be a bad one then you shouldn't be flying (or criticizing somebody else flying) an antique airplane.
If things aren't working out then consider the alternates. Ottumwa (KOTM) is about 10 miles east north-east of Antique Airfield. Albia is about 10 miles to the west. Either is a paved standard GA field good for an alternate, and I'm sure that somebody will come pick you up from either location if you called HQ and asked for a ride. The fly-in crew would much rather see you on foot than see a hurt person or bent airplane at Antique Airfield.
There's gas available at Antique Airfield. There are also plenty of people with mechanical experience and probably the world's highest concentration of expertise in antique aircraft engines and airframes should you need some assistance with oiling, greasing, valve adjustments, or occasionally impromptu repairs. It happens to everybody, and I've learned to always bring my toolbag on a 3000 mile round-trip! I've even been known to get some repair parts from the Ace Aircraft Supply store in Ottumwa. Ace is the place.
You will need to bring your own tie-downs and ropes, and make sure to use them while at the field. If a thunderstorm happens by it can be a little windy. All aircraft must be tied down at sundown.
On departure, again pay attention to the flagger especially at midfield. If you're lined up departing to the south you cannot see past midfield and there may still be somebody on the runway ahead of you. Be aware of the temperature (usually hot), the fact that grass is slower to accelerate on than pavement, and your fuel load. Since my Ryan is almost always maxed out on weight during Blakesburg trips, especially after picking up many pounds of assorted junk/treasures at the fly-market, I plan to leave Antique Airfield with about 1/4 tank of gas. I make a short hop over to Ottumwa to take on a full tank for the first cross-country leg home. Again no sense having pucker factor on takeoff.
This all may sound scary but flying at Antique Airfield is very safely managed. There are probably several thousand landings every year during the fly-in weekend without incident. Practice makes perfect, and use care.
Burn Some Gas and Give Some Rides
One of the things that makes Blakesburg special is that it is a flying event. Unless the weather is bad there will be an airplane in the air from sunrise to sunset. There is no other place on earth where you will see such a variety of antique and classic airplanes in flight.
Once you get comfortable I highly recommend getting in on the action yourself if you flew in. There is a pilot's briefing (daily at 10:30am) on the porch of the Ground Loop Inn (#1 on the map) and if you plan on flying attendance is required. However the rules are ultimately simple: be polite, watch for traffic, mind the flaggers, and be careful around the spectators. Otherwise there are no long taxiways and waits to takeoff or park, no complicated multiple mile long approaches, no ATC and wing-waggling (unless you want to waggle, then by all means), and no radios. Just the essence of grassroots flying.
Buzzing around the pattern is fun, but even better is to give rides to the many folks who will probably be standing around admiring your airplane. Doing rides is also a great way to meet folks at the field.
My personal favorite time to fly and do rides is in the evening, when the sun starts to set and it is the "magic hour" of side-lit luminesence. Chances are you'll also get some great photos sent to you later of your aircraft on takeoff or short final, spot-lit by the sunset.
Come join in whatever time you like to fly and continue the tradition of flying at Blakesburg.
What to do At the Fly-in?
The Blakesburg fly-in is a low-key affair. There are lots of people who love antique airplanes and grassroots aviation walking around and talking. I meet friends here every year that I usually don't see in person for the rest of the year. And of course there's the flying as mentioned above.
You won't find loud announcers, high-energy airshows, jet-powered trucks "racing" airplanes, exploding pyro effects, and brightly lit vendor booths where the staff all has matching logo polo shirts. If you want that type of flyin I recommend Oshkosh, which has its merits. At Antique Airfield you will get fly-bys, and the occasional impromptu acro demonstration. But what draws me back to Blakesburg every year are the people and the casual feel that I think captures grassroots aviation at its finest.
What I like to do:
This is obviously not a complete list. Hope to see you at Blakesburg!